All the characters in Song of Solomon are obsessed with and in many ways controlled by their memories of the past. The structure of the novel makes this very clear: Morrison often begins in medias res (in the middle of the action), and then loops back to describe how the characters got to this point.
In the first chapter, we see Macon walking through his town, unable to stop thinking about his painful experiences with his father and his sister. His memories are almost involuntary; they’re a form of trauma, a set of experiences so intense that he can’t help but relive them again and again. Throughout the later chapters, Morrison tells her story from the perspective of various characters; this requires telling the story out of order. Indeed, she often begins a chapter at a later stage chronologically in the plot, then loops further and further back into the past before finishing where she started. Just as the characters’ minds wander and are affected and pushed by their memories, Morrison’s prose has to wander to keep up with them.
Memory can be a prison; it certainly is for Macon Dead. Memory is also a source of joy for Morrison’s characters — often, while he’s in the midst of a bad experience, Milkman remembers a better one. And memory is also a way to free oneself from self-imposed prison. Milkman travels the country, relying on others’ memories of his father, his grandfather, and his great-grandfather. By putting these memories together, he creates a loose history of his family: his great-grandfather, Solomon, flew back to Africa, leaving behind his grandfather, Jake, who married an Indian woman, Sing. This story brings Milkman joy: he’s proud of his great-grandfather’s achievement, and eager to travel across the country telling everyone about it.
It’s important to recognize that Milkman’s interpretation of other people’s memories isn’t objective or scientific by any means. He believes what he wants to believe, and ignores the evidence that doesn’t make for a good story; for instance, he decides to believe that Solomon flew back to Africa, while ignoring completely the possibility that his grandfather may have been a slave. Memory poses a challenge, both to the people bearing the memories, and the people to whom these memories are passed. The challenge is to reshape memory into something satisfying and empowering, while still staying loyal to the basic outline of what happened. This requires creativity and imagination — one has to be a storyteller to reshape memory. Often, this kind of storytelling requires the suspension of disbelief. Milkman doesn’t question that his great-grandfather flew back to Africa (though Susan Byrd certainly does).
For that matter, there are all sorts of magical scenes in Song of Solomon itself — a woman who must be about 200 years old, a father rising from the dead, Milkman flying at the end, etc. Toni Morrison doesn’t seem to question any of these things — she offers them as the truth, and presumably, the reader is supposed to accept them in this way. While this may seem odd, one can argue that the same is true of the Bible: characters are described as living for centuries, rising from the dead, etc. The novel suggests that what’s more important than questioning the likelihood (the literal truth) of magical events — in the Bible, in Song of Solomon, and in the family history Milkman assembles — is finding moral or spiritual truth in the stories, as Milkman clearly does.
By itself, memory never changes — it just repeats, endlessly and traumatically, causing pain and regret for the bearer of the memories. Memories can’t always be forgotten, but they can be reshaped and assembled into a story; it’s this difficult task that Milkman attempts for most of the second half of the novel.
Memory and Storytelling ThemeTracker
Memory and Storytelling Quotes in Song of Solomon
He’d always believed his childhood was sterile, but the knowledge Macon and Ruth had given him wrapped his memory of it in septic sheets, heavy with the odor of illness, misery, and unforgiving hearts. His rebellions, minor as they were, had all been in the company of, or shared with, Guitar. And this latest Jack and the Beanstalk bid for freedom, even though it had been handed to him by his father—assigned almost—stood some chance of success.